3 Tips for Parents – When You’re About to Lose It

In 2012 I hosted a book group on my blog discussing The Whole-Brain Child: 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind. This post is the third in a series of reflections on each chapter.  [This post contains Amazon Affiliate links. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.]


Many years ago there was a public service television ad featuring a young mom frantically trying to manage many things at once.  On the screen, her baby is crying loudly, a pot is boiling over on the stove, and the phone is ringing on the wall (yes, it was that many years ago).  Completely frazzled, the mother turns rapidly toward the sound of the baby wailing, and a voice says,

Take hold of yourself before you take hold of your child.

That ad has stayed with me through many years of mothering.

While Chapter 3 of The Whole-Brain Child, Building the Staircase of the Mind, is written primarily about our children, the last two pages are written to parents.

The foundation of the chapter is that the lower brain, which is responsible for basic functions of the body and for strong emotions, needs to be integrated with the upper brain which is responsible for higher-order and analytical thinking.  It’s the upper brain that regulates our emotions and calms our reactions.

This may sound familiar, especially to those of us with children from “hard places.” When a child is in “fight or flight” mode, she is functioning in her lower brain and unable to process with her upper brain.

This is why Dr. Karyn Purvis taught that when our child is very upset, we use:

  • few words
  • gentle touch
  • a soft tone of voice
  • and when all else fails, we simply keep our child safe.

But what happens when we, the parents, are losing it and functioning in the downstairs brain?

The authors recommend three strategies:

1. Do no harm.  

“Close your mouth to avoid saying something you’ll regret. Put your hands behind your back to avoid any kind of rough physical contact.  When you’re in a downstairs moment, protect your child at all costs.” p.64

2.  Remove yourself from the situation and collect yourself.

Take a break.  Walk away. Try deep breathing, do some physical activity, call a friend; do what it takes to calm yourself.  For me, this also includes prayer – lots of it, but in the most simple forms, “Jesus, help me.”

3.  Repair. Quickly.

“Reconnect with your child as soon as you are calm and feeling more in control of yourself.  Then deal with whatever emotional and relational harm has been done.” p.65

Most of us aren’t going to cross the line to abuse, but we may fling words at our children that cannot be retrieved, or be harsher than we should be.

We need to recognize when we are no longer thinking clearly and implement these three strategies immediately.

So that young mama in the television ad? Before she took another step toward her crying baby, she needed to stop, turn off the stove, step outside and take some deep breaths. She might have even rolled her head from one shoulder to the other to release tension.

She needed to remind herself that everything was going to be okay and that she was a good mama. She needed to tell herself that dinner wasn’t ruined just because it boiled over, and the phone call she missed didn’t really matter. They could call back.

She needed to reflect for a moment on the sweet feeling of her baby in her arms, and maybe even say out loud, “I’m a good mama and I love my sweet baby.” Then, when her heart was no longer racing, when her upstairs brain was once again in charge, she could step back in the house, walk calmly to her baby’s crib and take her little one in her arms.

Question: What do you do to calm yourself when your downstairs brain has taken over and you’re about to lose it?

Reflections on other chapters:

The Whole-Brain Child and The River of Well-Being

Four Steps to Connect With and Redirect Your Child

encourage one another,



This post may contain Amazon Affiliate links. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

Let me introduce myself. Russ and I are the parents of twelve children by birth and adoption, and sometimes more through foster care. I'm the creator of One Thankful Mom which has been as much of a gift to me as to my readers. In 2011 I became a TBRI® Pracitioner* and have lived and breathed connected parenting ever since. I'm deeply honored to be the co-author, together with the late Dr. Karyn Purvis, of The Connected Parent; it is her final written work. I love speaking at events for adoptive and foster parents. I'm also the co-founder of The Adoption Connection, a podcast and resource site for adoptive moms. I mentor and encourage adoptive moms so you can find courage and hope in your journeys of loving your children well.


  1. Jamie
    October 3, 2016

    This. This is what I needed today. Thank you. Even though I have known TBRI since before having a child, reminders are helpful and validation that ‘yes, there are difficult moments/days/months’ is beautiful.

    1. Lisa Qualls
      October 4, 2016

      Oh yes, Jamie, there are difficult moments, and sometimes we fail miserably, then we pick ourselves up, cry a bit, seek forgiveness, and ask for a do-over. Parenting is a winding journey with so many sweet moments, we just have to press through the really messy ones too. You are doing amazing work.

  2. Melissa Kugler
    October 3, 2016

    I have found myself talking to myself out loud in front of my children. Meanwhile they are looking at me like I am crazy. I am currently in a place of many apologies given for just loosing my crap. I am not abusive but I am known to yell….it’s my own fight or flight issues and coping skill failure. Ugh. I often do not feel like a good mom…that description of the ad actually made me teary.

    1. Lisa Qualls
      October 4, 2016

      Melissa, I look back over my many years of mothering, and I have regrets over things I’ve said and done. We’re not perfect and sometimes we fail, but we seek forgiveness from our children and the people we love, and we start over. We learn better ways of coping, we learn to walk away and deal with our stress, and we get stronger and better. I’m sure the reason I remember that ad so well is that it resonates with me. The fact that this speaks to you is evidence that you are a good mom – you care, you want to do better for your family and for you. Press on, sister. Sending you love.

  3. Heidi
    October 4, 2016

    With a new baby in the house, this is a timely post. Those baby cries elevate everyone’s blood pressure! I am finding this time around, that I take out my frustration with too many things coming at me at once on my big kids. Of course, that is no better than taking it out on the screaming baby. 🙁 Thank you for these tips on how to better handle the hard moments.

    1. Lisa Qualls
      October 4, 2016

      Heidi, congratulations on your new baby! Such happy news – and yes, those cries can add lots of stress to the house. I hope you get breaks and can take some deep breaths every day. Many blessings to you.

  4. Killeen McGowan
    October 5, 2016

    I picked this book up on audible as a result of stumbling across your blog post series. I am glad I did! I’m a few chapters in. So far, it’s been a great listen on the way home from work, and has me in a ready frame of mind to deal with *whatever* the emotional temperature is when I walk through the door. 🙂

    Cheers! Killeen

    1. Lisa Qualls
      October 5, 2016

      I’m so glad to hear that, Killeen!


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